Last week’s post took this history up to 1939 by which time the Metropolitan Borough of Wandsworth had built 2842 council homes and Battersea a little over 1000. London County Council estates added to the total but much of this work was undone by the wave of flying bomb attacks between June 1944 and March 1945 which hit the district hard. In the aftermath of war, the immediate focus was on temporary housing for those made homeless. In the longer term, Wandsworth would feature some of the most celebrated and a few of the most notorious council estates in the capital.
To cope with the immediate crisis, almost 1500 Portal prefabs had been erected in the Borough and 257 wooden hutments by 1947. Less well known is the extensive use of requisition powers made in this period – unoccupied homes taken over by the local council under emergency powers granted by government. As late as 1953, 3700 homes (housing around 6400 people) were taken over and let by the Council. It wasn’t until 1960 that all these homes were returned to their owners or otherwise disposed of.
The changed politics of post-1945 Britain also affected Wandsworth. A tiny (sometimes non-existent minority) in the interwar period, Labour took control of the Council in 1945, only to lose power four years later and not regain it until 1962. Battersea remained securely Labour. In practice, and in contrast to the far more divided politics of the 1970s and beyond, it was probably the broad political consensus behind the construction of council housing in this period which was most significant.
It was, however, a Labour council and a Labour Housing Minister – Aneurin Bevan – who opened Wandsworth Metropolitan Borough Council’s first permanent post-war scheme, the Wendelsworth Estate in April 1949. (And just to prove that party politics were far from dead, the ceremony was boycotted by Conservative councillors who viewed it, perhaps rightly in view of its timing, as an election stunt.)
Wendelsworth shows something of the ambition of these times. It comprised 448 flats and 16 houses and, in the attempt to cater for a broader cross-section of the population beyond the families which council housing had principally accommodated to date, 21 homes for elderly people and a hostel for 120 single women. A nursery school and community centre were also provided, reflecting the neighbourhood ideals to the fore in this early post-war period.
As notable was a conscious attempt to provide attractive accommodation: (1)
the dreary brown-tiled entrance halls which have characterised many of the earlier municipal blocks have been abandoned by the architect, and part of the walls are covered with a bright green material…As for the flats themselves – they are delightful. The passage of the flat I inspected was very bright because of the admirable glass door to the living room. Housewives, I am sure, will welcome the door which connects the kitchen and the dining room and the excellently planned kitchen itself.
The Estate – its tallest blocks were eight storeys high – also included lifts, always considered too expensive for working-class accommodation in pre-war years. These, of course, were the essential precursor to high-rise and the LCC built its very first point block in Southfields. At just eleven storeys, Oatlands Court qualified for Ian Nairn’s praise – ‘compact, not too tall, immediately lucid’ with ‘charm and humanity and, above all, modesty’.(2) In design terms, the T-shaped block, one flat in each arm, provided its residents with considerable quiet and privacy.
Encouraged by this early success, the LCC built between 1953 and 1955 a larger and more sculptural scheme in the Fitzhugh Estate where Oliver Cox of the LCC Architects Department designed five eleven-storey blocks carefully arranged to fit and exploit an existing greenfield setting.
At this stage – in the early 1950s – high-rise was seen as the best means of providing the ‘mixed development’ schemes (with a range of housing types to both create greater visual interest and cater for a wider range of population than earlier, more uniform, estates) then coming into vogue. The Ackroydon Estate to the west of Wandsworth borough in Wimbledon Parkside, built between 1950 and 1953, is a fine early example – according to one early resident, ‘the finest estate in London, and anybody here will tell you so’. (3)
The bare numbers give a good idea of just how ‘mixed’ the development was – 16 houses, 106 maisonettes in four-storey walk-up blocks and 314 flats in a range of three, five, eight and eleven storey blocks. But the real success of the Estate was in the disposition of its dwellings and its landscaping which followed upon ‘a complete survey of the site including the position, size and condition of all trees, landscape and garden features’. (4)
This was said to be a triumph for ‘the Swedish boys’ – that is those within the LCC Architects Department who looked to the ‘softer’, more humane social housing of the Scandinavian welfare states as their model. Their grand set piece is, of course, Alton East constructed in the early 1950s – a mix of low-rise two-storey terraces and four-storey maisonettes and eleven-storey point blocks: 744 dwellings overall whose effect, according to Pevsner, was one of ‘picturesque informality’.
Those are words that might have horrified the followers of le Corbusier who designed the later Alton West Estate which embodied a more consciously monumental and uncompromisingly modernist aesthetic designed to make dramatic use of its parkland setting. Here, though low-rise homes also feature, it is the 15 eleven-storey point blocks and the five ten-storey slab blocks which dominate.
The Alton Estate (you can choose your sides between East and West) reflects the soaring ambitions of its day and does so with a quality and panache that later mass housing almost uniformly failed to achieve. By the 1960s, high-rise had become more of an expedient and less of a tool – a situation created, in financial terms, by the 1956 Housing Subsidies Act (which awarded higher grants the higher you built) and, politically, by a housing drive supported by both major parties determined to build on a scale that would replace the country’s remaining slum housing – there was still a great deal of it – for once and for all.
As Conservative and Labour competed to promise the most new homes – Conservatives committed to 350,000 a year in 1963 but were outbid by a Labour opposition promising 500,000 in the following year, the consequence was a reliance on system building as the necessary means to deliver such numbers. At this point our story becomes more sombre.
Here we return to the boroughs and specifically Battersea. The Winstanley Road area had long been earmarked for clearance and over a ten year period from 1956 a new estate emerged. The first phase was modest three-storey; the second comprised 547 homes in blocks of varying heights, the tallest rising to 18 storeys. Still, these towers were built conventionally of in-situ concrete but later lower blocks were system-built by Wates.(5)
Despite a RIBA medal for good design in 1967, design flaws rapidly emerged with deficient vents and doors, faulty lifts and internal condensation. There were social problems too as the Estate became plagued with vandalism. Plans for the regeneration of the Estate have been in motion since 2013 with the residents’ ‘preferred option’ favouring comprehensive rebuilding at a cost of around £100m. The Estate is allegedly one of the hundred on David Cameron’s hit list of so-called ‘sink estates’ announced this month. Given the timing and finances just mentioned, you can judge for yourself the significance of Cameron’s announcement.
The garage, grime and hip hop collective, So Solid Crew, were formed on the Estate and member Jason Phillips remembers Winstanley as ‘our playground, even guys from neighbouring estates would head down there’. ‘Hopefully,’ he continues, ‘the development will bring some new working-class people to the area’.(6) Given Wandsworth’s Council’s record and the current Government’s definition of ‘affordability’ that, sadly, seems unlikely.
The York Road Estate – over 600 flats in three eight-storey slab blocks and three 16-storey towers – begun by Battersea and completed by the new Wandsworth Borough Council was also system-built. A 2010 refurbishment which included re-cladding, new windows, rewiring, CCTV upgrades and landscaping to address the range of its problems cost £6.4m.
The Doddington Estate, inaugurated by Battersea but again completed between 1967 and 1971 by Wandsworth, was built by Laings using a Jespersen system. At its worst, 400 of its 970 flats lost heating and two plumbers were kept on permanent standby to deal with problems. By 1983, due to problems of crime and anti-social behavior, it had been dubbed by a sensationalist local press as ‘the Estate of Terror’. Between 1986 and 1993, £17m was spent on a renewal programme which also included the removal of crime-ridden underground car parks and elevated walkways.
Daringly, though with questionable politics, the Conservative-led Wandsworth Council aspired in 1987 to create a place where ‘a middle class couple can come back to late at night and buy some pâté and a bottle of wine’. The second element of their programme was a scheme of ‘homesteading’ whereby flats were sold at rock-bottom prices with the onus on new owner-occupiers to carry out necessity internal repairs.
This was a very different politics to that which had inspired Sidney Sporle, chair of Battersea Metropolitan Borough’s Housing Committee, who had been the initial driving force behind these grandiose schemes. Some might see Wandsworth’s modern politics as a form of corruption or, at least, betrayal but Sporle’s corruption was clear-cut – he was gaoled for four years in 1971 for taking bribes from contractors. His links with T Dan Smith and John Poulson capture the febrile, money-charged ambitions of the day.
Sporle, however, looking back in 1976, preferred to recall the ideals of the new housing: (7)
It was heaven to them. Now they have a separate kitchen, separate toilets. It was unheard of in the old days there. You went down the end of the garden…People were fighting to get in them. They were luxury flats – then… In the old houses there were four to five families to a house. Some houses didn’t even have a bloody roof. The kids had no room to play there either. But they didn’t vandalise the place.
He acknowledged, though, that the taller blocks might have been a mistake:
If I had to do it all over again I would not go over five storeys…There’s a new generation now, and those at the top of tower blocks – they don’t seem nearer to God, but further away.
But, ultimately, his parting shot? ‘Life is too short for regrets mate’.
If all this will seem to many an appropriate death knell to the hopes placed in social housing, it is not the end of the story. After the mistakes of the 1960s, much of the best council housing was built in the 1970s, just as Wandsworth’s new Conservative council and the Thatcher government elected in 1979 were about to perform its last rites. By 1978, the Borough owned around 28,000 homes, housing around a third of its population. Of these, 40 per cent had been sold off by 1990.
The Kambala Estate in Battersea, a modest scheme of low-rise brick-built houses and flats, was built between 1976 and 1979.
The Maysoule Estate, tucked away and easily overlooked just to the west of Clapham Junction, designed by Phippen, Randall & Parkes for Wandsworth Council, was completed at the same time. To the authors of the London Survey, it: (8)
demonstrates the quiet intelligence and decency which were sometimes attained shortly before the public housing programmes came to a halt.
Perhaps, after all the sound and fury, that slightly elegiac note provides a fitting point at which to end this brief survey of Wandsworth’s council housing – a repository of dreams, ideals and ambitions but, above all and however flawed, an attempt to meet the housing needs of ordinary people with a drive and on a scale that we might wish to emulate today.
(1) ‘Brighter Council Flats’, Wandsworth Borough News, 25 Feb, 1949, included with a range of sources and other detail in the history page of the Wendelsworth Residents Association website.
(2) Ian Nairn, Nairn’s London (originally published 1966, republished 2014)
(3) Quoted in David Kynaston, Modernity Britain: Opening the Box, 1957-1959 (2013)
(4) Boris Ford, Cambridge Cultural History of Britain: Volume 9, Modern Britain (1992)
(5) Simon Hogg, Labour councillor for Latchmere Ward which covers Winstanley, has published a fascinating collection of photos and recollections of the Estate here: Why Was the Winstanley Estate Built?. His set of photographs of the Estate also provide a deliberate corrective to the usual negative images deployed.
(6) Quoted in Mark Blunden, ‘London housing estate where So Solid Crew formed set for demolition‘, Evening Standard, 20 February 2014
(7) Tony Cohen, ‘Up the Junction in a Tower Block Is No Family Life’, South London Press, 10 November 1976. The architecture and politics of this era of Battersea council housing are dealt with in greater detail by the Survey of London, Battersea: (Draft) Introduction (2013)
(8) Survey of London, Battersea; Ch 9 (draft) West of Plough Lane (2013)